WASHINGTON DC — The beating death of a Vietnamese-Cambodian earlier this month was the first incident in several years that some are calling a hate crime.
Leaders of the Vietnamese community in Cambodia, as well as the Vietnamese Embassy, say they want the Cambodian authorities to pay more attention to the issue, especially with the escalation of anti-Vietnamese rhetoric by the opposition in recent months.
But the Vietnamese in Cambodia are not the only victims of such attitudes.
Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, recently received death threats on Facebook for speaking out against racism within the speeches of opposition leader Sam Rainsy and anti-Vietnamese racism in general.
In an interview with VOA Khmer, Ou Virak said racism is a prevalent threat to Cambodia.
The problem stems from traditional animosity between the two cultures, the Khmer Rouge, and the post-Khmer Rouge occupation of Cambodia by Vietnam. The opposition has traditional exploited the mistrust of many Cambodians of the Vietnamese by incorporating anti-immigration and anti-encroachment into its political platform. But Ou Virak said the practice needs to stop.
“In my view, the whole of Cambodia will lose because our country will start to split,” he said. “Firstly, because we start to discriminate against Vietnamese; and secondly, we start to paint colors on each other, accusing supporters of a different political party as an enemy or Vietnamese puppet. At the end of the day, we see each other as enemies and can kill each other easily.”
About 5 percent of Cambodians are ethnic Vietnamese, either by birth or by immigration. Sem Chi, head of the Khmer Vietnamese Association in Cambodia, said his organization encourages Vietnamese in Cambodia to respect the country’s traditions and cultures to seek to “live together side by side.”
“On behalf of the association I would like to appeal to competent authorities to try their best to prevent any racism,” he said. “And secondly, I would also like to appeal to all nongovernmental organizations to help ensure that there is no racism.”
Pham Chi Dung, a Vietnamese journalist and social activist, acknowledged that the ongoing relationship between the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as exploitation of Cambodia’s resources by Vietnamese investors, have added fuel to an already existing racism.
The rise in popularity of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, with its anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, has increased the problem, he said.
Such sentiment was not so open when the ruling Cambodian People’s Party was still strong, but with its weakening trend this becomes more open, he said. As the CPP’s influence weakens, “then it is most likely that the anti-Vietnam sentiment increases sharply in Cambodia,” he said. “And it is also likely that the Cambodian upheaval has a significant impact on Vietnamese society and undermines the Vietnamese government’s standing.”
Vietnamese companies in the provinces continue to run afoul of Cambodian villagers. In the most recent case, indigenous tribes in Ratanakkiri province have accused the Vietnamese rubber company Hoang Anh Gia Lai of destroying their forests and pushing them from their homes.
Such incidents reinforce the perception by many Cambodians that the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen is under the influence of Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi, Pham said.
The secretive nature of Phnom Penh’s dealings with Hanoi can also add to the problem, he said.
“To ease violence between the two peoples, it is necessary to reduce or remove the Vietnamese regime’s backstage dealings with Cambodia,” he said. “In other words, scale down their support for Hun Sen’s government and let the Cambodian people determine their own fate.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said anti-Vietnamese sentiment has risen and fallen over the years. But he said Cambodia is not under the influence of other countries.
All in all, the problem of racism persists. The UN’s special human rights envoy, Surya Subedi, openly called for an end to it in his most recent visit. And local human rights groups have called for an investigation into hate crimes such as the killing of the Vietnamese motorist this month.
“We would like to appeal to all Cambodians to respect the law and try to avoid racial violence,” Chan Soveth, senior investigator for the rights group Adhoc, said. “We are blessed not to have this kind of violence like in other countries. Therefore, we want our people to live together in harmony and the laws, too, should be applied equally for everybody.”
Meanwhile, police say they are still investigating the killing. One man has been detained and charged so far.
In a statement following the incident, the Rescue Party issued a statement calling for calm. And its leaders deny employing racism for political gain.
“We do not discriminate against anybody, as our opponents have been painting this colors upon us,” Rescue Party spokesman Yim Sovann said. “They also twist it before the national and international forums, saying that the CNRP discriminates against this and that. So far what we have been advocating for is the proper respect of immigration law and the law on nationality. We definitely do not support any discrimination or race, color, religious belief, or origins.”
For his part, Ou virak says more discussion about racism needs to take place. That means honest discussions about immigration issues, as well, he said.
“Once we can do that we can unite Khmer and Khmer,” he said. “This is the best solution.”